Wastewater fine added insult to injury

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It was announced Monday that the state has fined the town of Bennington $15,000 for failing to keep its wastewater treatment facility properly maintained. Given that the town already intends to seek a bond for about $10 million to pay for repairs, the fine is a small insult atop a larger injury.

Bennington has a permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation to discharge treated sewage into the Walloomsac River. One of the last stages of the treatment process is that treated sewage gets run through "rotating biological contactors," or RBCs, prior to being discharged.

Last summer, the gear boxes on all but a third of these devices failed, creating an odor problem that residents near the plant had every right to complain about. According to the state, the allowable level of bacteria in the water was exceeded, however it should be noted that, according to the state itself, there is no evidence that people's health and safety were impacted.

According to Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd, the state requires the town to have 24 RBCs running at a given time. The town had 32 and ran the required 24. In 2015, before the problem occurred, the town planned to buy four new RBC gear boxes a year. At a cost of $22,000 each, there's a reason it wasn't done all at once.

Three of the new gearbox units then failed, causing a chain reaction that knocked out all but a third of the others. This is what led to the odor problem. The plant is now running with 25 RBCs, one more than the state requires. It must also submit a plan on how it intends to replace and maintain its RBCs.

Fixing the plant will require the town to bond between $9.5 and $11 million. It's one of the largest bonds the town has ever sought.

It's important that towns with wastewater facilities take water pollution seriously. State laws need teeth, and in some cases fines are more than appropriate.

We don't feel that's the case here. Had the RBC gear boxes not been working fine for decades while getting good reviews from the state, had there been no plan at all to replace them, and had the failure not been caused by the new, replacement parts, we might feel a $15,000 fine to be wholly appropriate; a fitting punishment for years of deferred maintenance and a warning to other towns not to let their facilities fall into disrepair.

As it stands now, the fine is largely symbolic, with $15,000 being a fairly small portion of the Sewer Fund's $1.98 million annual budget. The fine won't impact sewer rates, either, according to Hurd. Though to hear some people talk, the penalty will lead to Bennington going bankrupt.

And that's where the kick really is: The $15,000 fine makes it seem as though those managing the treatment facility have been negligent, when they really haven't been. It adds a level of acrimony to discussions we'll soon be having about a multi-million dollar bond. The fine is as unhelpful as it was unnecessary.


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